Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has written to Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani to demand “necessary changes” in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati. And to lecture the Central Board of Film Certification about the need to canvass the opinions of “famous historians” and the overlords of hurt sentiments, “members of the aggrieved community”. History is irrelevant to Padmavati, a fictional feature about a historical figure. But that is an irrelevant fact in Raje’s Rajasthan which is taking giant strides backward when it comes to matters involving freedom of expression.
A ruling party committed to a growth agenda usually promotes trade fairs to attract investment. But the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan is, instead, promoting a Hindu fair where visitors can get a crash course on alleged Christian conspiracies and “love jihad”, a communally-charged campaign of innuendo and hate, sign up for a crusade to elevate the Indian cow to the status of the “national mother” while denouncing its Jersey cousin as a source of disease and decadence, or join caste organisations.
The wares offered by the Hindu Spiritual and Service Fair in Jaipur would be merely disheartening, for its organisers have a right to express their beliefs, no matter how regressive. But they take on a darker hue when students of schools in the state capital are press-ganged into attending, and exposed to fundamentalist propaganda by governmental fiat. For long, Raje was regarded as a modern face of the BJP, a prominent regional leader in a party which appeared to have left behind archaic battles over perceived historical wrongs and earned a sweeping national mandate by committing itself to the future, a chief minister of an important state in an India defined by growth and opportunity.
But under her stewardship, regressive politics has become commonplace in Rajasthan. Cultural events in the state routinely face threats of violence from groups with over-delicate sentiments. Schools have become a special focus, and textbooks are being rewritten to allow Maharana Pratap to win the battle of Haldighati. An education ministry journal for schoolteachers recently prescribed sweeping floors, grinding corn and filling pitchers as exercises appropriate for women. While her government repeatedly shows its commitment to reversing progress, Raje maintains a stoic silence. She spoke out last week, but only to advocate the censoring of Padmavati.
Assessments by credit ratings agencies are not the only indices by which the fitness of nations and leaders is gauged. The social and political interventions of government are also evaluated, for no state or country can grow in the shadow of fragile sentiments and fear of violence. Pandering to the sentiments of the mob may be politically expedient, but it diminishes the image of the state and its leadership. And in the future, there will be other mobs, with other hurts. Once the door to appeasement is opened, it cannot be closed.